Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category


A book review from my archives. It appeared originally in SFX #245. Note that when I read this back in 2014, the film was yet to be made. When it was, it did not star Tom hanks. I enjoyed the book, with reservations. A good friend found it tedious, putting it aside half-read with the immortal words “Fuck you, Mr Watney, and your space potatoes.”


Author: Andy Weir

Publisher: Del Rey


Robinson Crusoe on Mars redux

Not often does SFX give the top slot to a novel by a first timer, but The Martian comes highly recommended. Originally self-published in 2012, The Martian garnered thousands of great reviews and praise from none other than Stephen Baxter. Does this story of an astronaut stranded on Mars live up to the hype? Mostly yes, but there’s a tiny bit of no in there.

Mark Watney is an astronaut on NASA’s third excursion to the Red Planet. Ares 3 is only a few days into its mission when a sandstorm hits. The ascent vehicle is threatened by Mars’ killer winds, so NASA orders its astronauts to mount up and head home. Watney is hit by debris and knocked flying. He’s lost, presumed dead, and the team’s commander makes the tough call to launch.

Watney is wounded, but alive. Waking up after his comrades have gone, equipped with a limited amount of resources, he has to figure out a way to survive.

The amount of research here is astounding. We’re suckers for well-grounded fiction, and on the technical side The Martian is exemplary. Weir has a good knowledge of several fields of science (much like his astronaut heroes), and besides a plausible manned Mars mission plan, we get some cracking lessons in botany, astrophysics, chemistry and mechanical engineering. Watney, an engineer/botanist, details his various survival schemes in his log. These witty first-person segments are the better part of the novel. When we shift to third-person passages detailing NASA’s attempts to rescue him, it’s jarring change of gear at first, and they are less engaging throughout.

Engagement is one of the book’s two weaknesses. There’s little emotional heft. Watney’s an astronaut, and a certain devil-may-care attitude to his own death is to be expected (warning: astronauts are awesome. Reading about astronauts can lead to feelings of inadequacy). But the sections on Earth, which could have injected genuine feeling, follow a similar joke-heavy trajectory. The Martian is funny, especially Watney, but backchat, considered swearing and fist-pumping take the place of poignancy. This kind of Whedon-esque interaction is the norm in idealised geek culture, but not absolutely everybody (even at NASA) behaves this way. A difficult balance to strike, we admit, for The Martian could easily have gone the other way and slipped into the mawkishness of 1998 film Armageddon. Even so, at times the novel seems like a jolly set of Dungeons & Dragons puzzles rather than a deadly situation faced by real people. This is an outward looking book. All Watney’s problems are ones that can be solved by the application of ingenuity. He doesn’t get lonely, or freak out, or miss pancakes. His inner life is skated over, albeit adroitly.

The other weakness is one partly brought on by the nature of the narrative. The Martian has been compared to Apollo 13 (real life disaster and hit Tom Hanks movie!). Fair enough, but there’s a subtle difference – on Apollo 13 one thing went wrong that led to a lot of other things going wrong. In The Martian, everything goes wrong. For the sake of story it has to, but Watney’s chain of disasters stretch credulity even as they have you turning the page. This is not a Martian Castaway (hit Tom Hanks movie!) story about the psychology of isolation, but perhaps with a bit of such affect the unlikelihood of Watney’s serial misfortunes would be less noticeable.

The Martian’s film rights have been sold, and it strikes us that, with the right director, this might be a tale that makes for a better film (perhaps a hit, with Tom Hanks). Impressive, but definitely one for the head, not the heart.


Champion of Mars still 99p/$1.50


From SFX #240.


Author: Christopher Priestley

Publisher: Bloomsbury

213 pages

Rime reloaded

Christopher Priestley brings us more nautical chills with this retelling of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner – you know the one: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s big poem, water, water everywhere, dead albatrosses, cursed sailors. That one.

We’ve plenty of time for Priestley, his horror stories are spooky in the manner of MR James. That they’re for kids is frankly irrelevant, they give us the willies too. His other gift – for crisp, uncluttered writing – is marvellously utilised to render Coleridge’s poem as prose. A new young protagonist gives us our viewpoint (he’s in one line in the poem), a fresh ending provides salvation, and much atmosphere is spun from Coleridge’s words along the way. It’s beautifully told, but for all that not as scary as some of Priestley’s other stories.

Did you know?

Coleridge – who was a philosopher as well as a poet – came up with the oft-used phrase “suspension of disbelief.”

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Crash 99p/$1.50


You may have spotted a flurry of book reviews recently on this here blog. I’ve a couple more pieces from Death Ray to put up, but they’re tricky things to transfer over and I wish to wallow in nostalgia when I’m done. I’m not ready for that, and neither are you, so I’ve moved on to my store of reviews done from 2005 onwards for other folks. In tandem with this effusion of criticism, I’m sticking all my reviews from here onto Goodreads. You know, if I were rich and famous and all that Barbara Cartland stuff then I’d pay someone to do this, but I can’t afford any more staff, and the dog can’t type. (The dog is the staff. He’s pretty rubbish at anything except being a dog, actually. Don’t hire a dog to do a man’s work. That’s good advice, heed it).

This latest review is of Adam Roberts’ tribute to Jules Verne, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea. I love Roberts, like properly, as a man, I mean, he has a manly beard and twinkly eyes and speaks French. He also writes awesome books, and is finally getting recognition for doing so. I have his latest, The Thing Itself to read over Christmas and I am very much looking forward to that. Not quite as much as I anticipate the new Star Wars, but it’s a close run thing. Anyway, on with this. (more…)

From SFX #240.


Author: Stephen Baxter

Publisher: Gollancz

485 pages

Per Ardua Ad Astra

A book about a risky colony mission to a tidally locked planet. No, we’re not talking about Crash (by some bloke called Guy Haley), but Proxima, Stephen Baxter’s latest. Inspired by the same bit of science as Crash – the discovery of  exoplanets all over the galaxy – it’s fascinating to see another writer’s take on similar subject matter.

Protagonist Yuri is an out-of-time remnant of “The Heroic Generation”, whose energy intensive geo-engineering efforts to sort out global warming caused more problems than it solved. Popped into cryo-stasis by parents hoping for a better future, he wakes up into a world that resents him for his association with the disastrous past. He’s not treated well, and that includes being shipped off on the dodgy, bare-bones colony effort to the Alpha Centauri multiple star system. His struggle to remain alive, and the mysteries he uncovers on the way, form one of the novel’s two major strands. The other strand takes place in the Solar System, where the cold war between the expansionist Chinese Empire and the constituent countries of the United Nations is hotting up. Alien artefacts have been discovered on Mercury, and the UN isn’t sharing.

It’s not often you can agree with the hyperbole on the back of a book, but calling Baxter Arthur C. Clarke’s natural successor is bang on the money. Clarkian tropes such as mysterious extra-terrestrial leavings, deep time and the sinister majesty of the cosmos are greatly in evidence here. Baxter takes a worthwhile chunk of time detailing a fascinating planetary ecology for “Per Ardua” as the colonists end up calling their world. This is ingeniously alien, and includes a banded series of biospheres. Rather than possessing cells like Earth life, the creatures of Per Ardua are made of much larger, interchangeable “stems” with the result that they behave somewhat like predatory Lego, brutally disassembling one another and using the parts to create their own young. The depth and ingenuity of this part of the tale has one thinking of Clarke’s efforts in Rendezvous With Rama. Similarly well set out are Baxter’s various modes of space travel, which include a multi-year colony mission, a one man cosmic dash, and an interesting take on interstellar sailing, where the vessel contains tens of thousands of disposable sails, each invested with its own consciousness.

Baxter’s specialty is hard hard SF (and he’s very good at it). The flipside of this is that we’ve occasionally found his characters remote, and although those in Proxima are mostly well rounded, there is a fair bit of “as you know, Bob,” expository dialogue towards the beginning of the novel; the Australian billionaire Sir Michael King being particularly guilty of this. Having said that, this is only Baxter’s solution to a particular problem in writing hard SF – how do you convey to the reader the science and history of your future era? There are other solutions, all equally as flawed. This is simply the one Baxter favours, it’s just not our preference.

Despite the Baxter’s hard SF bias, he’s always been invested in the human side of things, and a large part of Proxima is concerned with stresses climate change will place on geopolitics, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the flexible morality people require to survive in difficult circumstances.

There’s a lot more in Proxima besides – alternate realities, wormholes, Teilhardian galactic consciousnesses, and a couple of mysteries set up for the next book on both human and cosmological scales. That’s right, this is number one of two, but we’re sufficiently hooked to come back for more. Classic Baxter.

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Crash 99p/$1.50

From SFX #237.


Author: Justin Richards

Publisher: Templar

432 pages

Nazi werewolf mayhem

Boy meets girl meets Nazis meets werewolves in this slight but fun romp. World War II Nazi experiments (was there anything they didn’t meddle with?) have produced a new strain of werewolf-ish super-soldiers. Complicating the issue are “proper” werewolves of ancient stock. Late-teen protagonist Peter (and the wolf, geddit?) gets drawn into the mix while visiting his dad’s latest archaeological dig in the Cotswolds.

Competently written and possessed of a loping pace, Wolfstone reads like a polished but not quite classic CBBC drama. Sounds patronising to say, but it’s perfect for readers out for something light and frothy. We mean that in a good way – its plot has just the right amount of intrigue, there are popular monsters (Nazis! Werewolves! Nazi werewolves!), while the awkward romance offers good cross-gender appeal. Unchallenging entertainment, although some of the geography is extremely iffy  – St Petersburg is not due east of Poland. In fact, Russia proper doesn’t even border Poland. Tsk.

Did you know?

Justin Richards is an editor for Doctor Who off the telly. No wonder Wolfstone’s got that TV vibe about it…

From SFX #241.

Doctor Sleep


Stephen King

Hodder and Stoughton

485 pages

The Shining established King as the preeminent voice in Horror, a field that was then, back in 1977, very diverse but that now comprises mainly him. Among King’s very best works, The Shining was a terrifying ghost story where psychic child Danny Torrance is trapped in the haunted Overlook hotel with his increasingly insane, alcoholic father and a whole load of spooks.

King doesn’t do a great many sequels, this is one of them. Set in the present day, Doctor Sleep follows Dan as he wins his own battle with the demon drink, only to come into conflict with a band of psychic vampires.

All of King’s usual strengths and weakness are here, as are all his usual tropes. King writes masterfully as always, and cheats a little, as usual. A couple of times his characters are aware of some important plot point, but King does not reveal it to the reader until its dramatic impact will be greatest. A little forced in the work of an author who otherwise lets us into his characters’ every thought, but this is King, and you don’t care.

For the truth is, there are few writers who have such a way with character (and that character is so important to his books, delivered through authorial peeks into thought and feeling, explains why his work is so rarely well adapted to the screen). Once his stories get their hooks into you, they are impossible to put down.

The story briefly touches on the aftermath of the Overlook inferno, with a young Danny meeting his mentor Dick Hallorann. We’re then into a sketchy detailing of Danny’s life as he turns to drink to dull his abilities, does something he comes to regret, and eventually finds a kind of peace. Dan settles in Frazier in New Hampshire, where – off the booze – he uses his “shining” to help the inhabitants of a nursing home die peacefully, earning himself the sobriquet “Doctor Sleep”.

When a “shining” girl is born in a nearby town who is even more powerful than Dan ever was, she attracts the attentions of The True Knot, Winnebago-riding oldsters who torture psychic children to death in order to eat their essence. Danny is drawn into her struggle.

Circularity is a key theme, as is the role of choice within a prescribed fate – Danny becoming an alcoholic like his father, then a teacher, like his saviour. It’s an idea that is subtly and admirably reinforced throughout. This is noticeably the work of an older man; all King’s works deal with death, but at the heart of Doctor Sleep is the acceptance of death, appreciating what you have, and finding joy in the next generation. The True Knot are great monsters because they are set in opposition to this. Cleverly, King makes them sympathetic, they just want to live, but their “enjoyment” of the next generation is most unwholesome and they are damned because they defy mortality.

If you’re wary of reading yet another King story about an alcoholic finding his place in small-town America, don’t be. Here we know the reason for the protagonist’s love of drink. Seeing Danny as a gifted/cursed boy means we feel for him as an adult – Torrance Junior is King’s best alcoholic yet.

King has been compared to Dickens, but in our opinion he’s closer to Ray Bradbury. Although King will probably never quite hit Bradbury’s heights of prose, there’s a similar lyricism here, and the same bittersweet melancholy about the transient nature of life that suffuses Bradbury’s work. The denouement of the novel takes place in autumn, and that’s no coincidence. You can practically smell the leaf piles burning, their fragrant smoke mixed with that of funeral pyres.